Engaged employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. Actively disengaged employees are disgruntled and disloyal because most of their workplace needs are unmet. It’s also been called “quiet quitting,” a phenomenon Gallup says may currently describe over half of the American workforce.

This year a New York law firm sued one of its lawyers, alleging both “quiet quitting” that was revealed in inflated time sheets and breach of contract by holding down a second job (her own firm). Such side hustles have also been cited as evidence of how disengaged from their primary position many employees are, and lawyers are among those hustling.

According to a recent Gallup poll, after trending up in recent years, employee engagement in the U.S. is seeing its first year-on-year annual declines in a decade — dropping from 36% engaged employees in 2020 to 34% in 2021 and then 32% in 2022. In the same year, 18% of employees said they were “actively disengaged” (an even more alienated status than quiet quitting), which is the highest that number has been since 2013.

 The engagement elements that declined the most from the pre-pandemic record-high engagement ratio in 2019 were: 

  • clarity of expectations
  • connection to the mission or purpose of the company
  • opportunities to learn and grow
  • opportunities to do what employees do best
  • feeling cared about at work  

Gallup also found a six-point decline in the percentage of employees who are extremely satisfied with their organization as a place to work. These are all indications that employees are feeling more disconnected from their employers. 

  • More employees reported that they don’t know what’s expected of them, don’t feel cared about, don’t see opportunities to learn and grow, and don’t feel connected to their employer’s “mission.”

Young employees report feeling the most disconnected. Engagement for those under 35 decreased by four percentage points; while active disengagement went up by the same amount.

 In comparison to older workers, younger workers experienced more decline in:

  • feeling cared about
  • having someone who encourages their development
  • opportunities to learn and grow
  • their opinions counting
  • having a best friend at work

Women experienced more of a decline in engagement than men, falling four points, while active disengagement increased by three points. Engagement among men declined by only one point and active disengagement increased by the same amount. In comparison to men, women saw larger declines in:

  • feeling cared about at work
  • having someone who encourages their development
  • having progress discussions

Workers who were in jobs that could be done remotely, but were forced to work on-site saw an increase of 7 points in active disengagement.

The most concerning decline for employees across all demographic groups has been in the lack of clear expectations, the most foundational of all engagement elements. Employees cannot perform at a high level when they are confused as to what they are supposed to do. Confused employees are more likely to look for other work and eventually leave the organization.

What could be causing this consistent lack of clarity?

  • Leadership not clearly communicating the organization’s intended cultural values and strategy in the new world of work.
  • Young workers who are in remote or hybrid settings are the most vulnerable — the increased physical separation may contribute to this.  
  • Managers not being in touch with the ongoing work-life challenges.  

What to do? A crucial move that managers can make to improve engagement is to have one-on-one conversations for 15-30 minutes each week with each direct report about goals, customers, wellbeing and recognition. One recent study found that that single activity more than any other develops high performance relationships, leading to a 54% increase in engagement.